Evolution Squared: Enduring appeal of the Hermès Carré H

Even if you are not familiar with the name Marc Berthier – who designed the Hermès Carré H – his work will almost certainly have caught your attention at some point. A graduate of the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris, Berthier began his career as an architect but branched out into design and created his own individual take on everything from furniture and toasters, to bathroom taps, binoculars and watches. Across an incredible career of well over half a century, the now 83-year-old Berthier has seen his work lauded and emulated across the world, as well as displayed in the MoMA in New York and the Musée National d’Art Moderne in Paris.

In 1967, he helped create a revolution in furniture design with his Ozoo collection for the Paris company Roche Bobois. He originally set out to design a simple set of table and chairs for children, but soon, stylish grown-ups couldn’t get enough of his shapes. The furniture was produced using innovative mouldable synthetics to create tastefully curvaceous forms. He showed that modern lightweight materials like polyester and fibreglass did not need to lack in style. A new Ozoo collection was released last year to celebrate 50 years since the release of the pieces that has spawned countless copycats.

In the late 1990s, Berthier created the beautifully tactile and playful bathroom-friendly Tykho radio. This award-winning design, which was featured on the cover of Time magazine, is an exercise in splash-proof, rubber-clad simplicity. You can still buy a Tykho radio today – it comes with USB charging-point, so you know it is from the present; but big splash-proof buttons offer only AM/FM and volume, so you listen like you are living in a simpler past.

Berthier’s journey into watch design came after his work caught the eye of Pierre-Alexis Dumas, Artistic Director of Hermès. “I was checking Marc Berthier’s file and was immediately struck by his sketch of a square shape,” Dumas said. “The square is a simple yet difficult geometrical shape that can be boring because of its harmonious lines. Even if it is strongly present in the other Hermès crafts such as silk scarves, the square is not frequently used in watchmaking. I therefore decided to meet Marc Berthier, while feeling both curious and intimidated.”

The meeting was a success and the two men worked together with Philippe Delhotal, Artistic Director of La Montre Hermès, who oversaw development at the Parisian luxury house’s watch atelier in Biel, Switzerland. The first watch came out in 2010 and was called the Carré H – carré being French for square. It had a square case containing a square dial, which itself featured a series of concentric squares in the middle and within that there was a small-seconds dial – also, of course, square.

All that squareness might sound a little too much, but the watch is incredibly striking, drawing the eye in with a pleasingly hypnotic feel. The downside is that the original watch, with its curved 36.5mm x 36.5mm titanium case and Sowind automatic movement, was produced in a limited edition of just 173 pieces – one for every year since the founding of Hermès, in 1837.

The reception to the original was so positive, according to Philippe Delhotal, that a new version was only a matter of time. “We first discussed a new interpretation of the Carré H in January 2016,” he said. “The idea was to return to the original, but in a simplified version with a sportier touch. We soon reached agreement on ideas for the evolution of this watch, which enabled us to move ahead rapidly with the project.”

Berthier was again closely involved in the design and the new Carré H was unveiled at SIHH earlier this year. The case is still square and subtly curved around the wrist, but size has been increased to 38mm x 38mm, and this time it is made from microbead-blasted steel rather than titanium. The watch again has an automatic movement, but now it is an in-house Hermès H1912 calibre.

The biggest aesthetic difference comes on the dial, which is now round rather than square and marked with bold double-digit Arabic numerals in a specially designed font. Although a bold departure from the original, the silhouette is the same and Berthier’s influence is clear to see. The new watch is no less striking, also creating depth as you look at it, this time with a three-stage dial that steps down towards the middle, drawing the eye towards the cross-hatching in the centre.

On a more practical level, the larger dial, coupled with the bold, Super-LumiNova-filled numerals – as well as a large, clear centre-seconds hand – makes this an incredibly easy watch to read. It really is very difficult to find anything unkind to say about it. But the internet can always find someone willing to try, and the best they have been able to come up with is to point out a certain resemblance to the Apple Watch. Well, the only resemblance is the shape of the case, and Berthier and Hermès got there a long time before Apple.

If the worst you can think to say about a design by a man in his eighties is that it in some way foresaw the shape of another revolutionary piece of product design further down the line, that really is not bad going.

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